This week finds me with all sorts of ideas for my research. On monday I attended a graduate conference at King’s College London on ‘Space and Motion’ that ranged all the way from James Joyce to Virginia Woolf. I presented a paper on the moral topos of the ocean as a space of moral turbulence. You should be able to get an idea of my discussion by following the link above. Today, however, I would like to talk more generally about the notion of aqueous turbulence.
I recently watched a documentary about the engineering feats achieved in the construction of the Burj-al-Arab hotel in Dubai, a building that exists as a testament to human attempts to master the natural world. An airconditioned oasis on an artificial island, the hotel withstands the instability of its own ponderous bulk and resists the battering force of the waves with a specially designed network of porous holes designed to attenuate the force of the ocean. It is an impossible building in a city that considers mastery of water to be a source of pride.
Yet it was not these features that fascinated me, but the great fountains in the lobby. These fountains, explained the host, use laminar flow nozzles, filters designed to scrub out the inherent turbulence of flowing water. We think of water as a shifting opaque entity, and yet this turbulence is an inherent result of motion. To move is to create a miniature vortex of shifting, swirling matter, and yet the laminar flow fountain seemingly overcomes these traits. In the video below, you will see a demonstration of turbulent and laminar flow using the example of a kitchen tap:
As you can see in the video, many of the traits that we associate with the fierce power of water -agitated motion, distortion, sound and force – do not exist within a laminar flow. Combined with a computerised control system, the fountain of the Burj-al Arab is able to shoot perfectly formed streams of water -like icicles in motion- into the air like leaping fish. This confounds and delights the observer, for we are used to a fluid dynamics more riven with strife. The question then occurred to me -how does limpidity and laminar flow differ morally to turbulence?
Before the ready availability of glass mirrors, it was water that provided the clearest reflection. One need only look at these pictures of the Salar de-Uyuni in Bolivia -a salt flat that forms a massive, perfect mirror of the sky- to see the power of stilled water. In Revelation, the passing of the world is accompanied by the phrase “and there was no more sea” (21:1), a literal comment given that the world was to end, and yet equally a moral comment. The association of limpidity with moral purity has long existed -the Locus Amoenus of the Classical and Medieval tradition was filled with clear pools and gently burbling brooks, not roaring torrents. The moral dichotomies of water in motion or at rest have a wide range of literary, narrative and intellectual threads, a point made convincingly by Margaret Cohen in The Novel and the Sea. I intend to pursue this idea further, and I imagine that there will be many more like me who will see this as an essential theme in a new, blue, humanities.
A little bit of a rambling monologue, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’ll go out by quoting some Lucretius, albeit from an old translation (I just like the sound of it):
A pool of water of but a finger’s depth,
Which lies between the stones along the pave,
Offers a vision downward into earth
As far, as from the earth o’erspread on high
The gulfs of heaven; that thus thou seemest to view
Clouds down below and heavenly bodies plunged
Wondrously in heaven under earth.
Titus Lucretius Carus – De Rerum Natura